Monthly Archives: April 2015

The Revolution That Wasn’t: Review of Fred Turner’s “The Democratic Surround”

[First published at the Society For U.S. Intellectual History Blog, March 8, 2015]

Fred Turner. The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. 376 pages.
Review by Matthew D. Linton

In the introduction to his The Democratic Surround Fred Turner paints a conventional picture of 1960s cultural radicalism’s relationship to the post-1945 period. “In popular memory”, he writes, “the 1960s rose up in a Technicolor wave and washed away decades of bland, black-and-white American life” (8). Though this picture of the revolutionary 1960s has proliferated, Turner argues that 1960s radicalism is best understood as the culmination of postwar American liberalism, not a reaction against it. Postwar intellectuals and their later critics “call[ed] for a society in which individual diversity might become the foundation for collective life” (9). They also shared a common mode for the realization of collective good in individual self-expression: democratic surrounds – multimedia installations in theaters and museums that promoted individual participation to actualize liberal values. For Turner, democratic surrounds showed the potential and perils of mid-century liberalism. While multimedia provided a useful critique of totalitarianism in its Nazi and Soviet variants, it also “represented a turn toward the managerial mode of control” that enveloped postwar liberalism, 1960s radicalism, and “haunts our culture today” (10).
The central argument of The Democratic Surround is for continuity. The specter of the totalitarian “mass man”, defined by blind obedience to authority, compelled American social scientists to create an opposing “New Man”. This New Man was imbued with American liberal values including tolerance, individual agency, and spontaneity and remained psychologically whole despite the social dislocation wrought by modernization (3). These same core values perpetuated after the war. The menace of the Nazi mass man was transferred to the Soviet Union. Under the aegis of totalitarianism, ideological differences between Nazism and Soviet communism were collapsed obviating the need to reconsider American values in the post war period. Liberal values as a bulwark to communism have positive and negative consequences for Turner. On the one hand, Cold War liberals believed their common values provided a path to equality for marginalized racial and ethnic groups. Museum exhibits like The Family of Man presented a diverse America united by a common devotion to liberal principles. On the other hand however, Turner recognizes that the liberal project was driven by elites and experts often to the exclusion of the same racial, ethnic, and gender voices they were supposed to be championing. As Turner concludes one of his chapters, liberals envisioned “the emergence of a society whose citizens were to manage themselves in terms set by the systems within which they lived – and by the experts who developed those systems” (212).
More surprisingly than the connection between World War II and Cold War liberalism, Turner finds the same values animating the 1960s counterculture. A common fear of conformity united Americans between 1945 and 1970. The wartime and Cold War liberals stressed individuality against the hive-mind of the totalitarian mass man. Similarly, the counterculture emphasized individual agency and spontaneity against the perceived conformism of the 1950s’ nuclear family and Cold War containment. Freedom of expression also manifest itself in similar ways across generations. Be-Ins stressed democratic surroundfreedom of movement in the same ways earlier museum exhibits like The Family of Man encouraged visitors to roam freely.
Beyond a shared value system, the characters in The Democratic Surround share a common medium: multimedia arrays. Mass men were created in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union by propaganda. Social scientists, some of whom like the Frankfurt School’s Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno were living in the United States in exile, saw multimedia as an antidote to propaganda’s totalizing message. In accord with American social scientific prescriptions, artists like Bauhaus teachers Lazlo Moholy-Nagy and Herbert Bayer and the experimental musician John Cage, created multimedia arrays for museums, classrooms, and theaters. These arrays sought both to promote liberal values while avoiding the crude propaganda of the totalitarian enemy. Some of Turner’s characters were more straightforward about promoting American values than others. Herbert Bayer’s The Family of Man exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art explicitly promoted liberal American values like tolerance as vital for promoting peace in a world armed with nuclear weapons. Other democratic surrounds were more obscure in promoting liberalism. John Cage’s performances at Black Mountain College for example, sought to liberate “listeners from subjection to the emotional manipulation of classical and popular music” (116). Though less directly connected to national aims, Cage nonetheless shared with Bayer, Adorno, and others anxieties about authoritarianism and saw the cure in greater individual autonomy.
Turner’s cast of characters share flaws as well as values and anxieties. Foremost is hypocrisy surrounding inclusiveness. In their democratic surrounds, postwar and World War II era liberals presented the US as tolerant and diverse. The architects of these surrounds did not reflect this diversity however. With the exceptions of female social scientists like Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, nearly all the characters in Turner’s book – from social scientists to counterculture artists – are white men. This is a reflection on the composition of America’s midcentury elite, which largely excluded women and ethnic minorities from positions of influence. Under this system Americans from all walks of life could enjoy the benefits of managerial largesse, but they were not expected to participate in the top-down ordering of society.
Turner is particularly scathing in his assessment of the 1960s counterculture’s turn “inward, away from campaigns for racial and sexual equality and toward a new psychological politics” (260). While World War II and postwar liberals sought political redress for racial and sexual inequality, counterculture purveyors of the democratic surround retreated from politics and instead looked for mystical solutions to social ills. The Happening – a multimedia performance that sought to blur the lines between performer and audience – is, for Turner, an example of the democratic surround’s mystical turn. Happenings challenged authority, but they did not seek to integrate the anomic individual “into a racially diverse society.” “Racial diversity was simply not an issue in their work”, Turner concludes (269). More worrying were Happenings’ gender politics. In contrast to their postwar forefathers who often simply excluded women, Turner finds women were often sexually exploited at Happenings. Unlike men who were rarely nude, Female nudity was a cliché central to the Happening. This showed women as subjects to be gazed upon and controlled by men, not as equal participants in free expression (270). In contrast to other works that celebrate the 1960s as a period of increased diversity and sexual liberation, The Democratic Surround presents a depoliticized counterculture governed by racial and sexual discrimination.
By emphasizing continuities in values and mediums across mid-century America, Turner’s The Democratic Surround is a valuable addition to a growing literature challenging a progressive narrative that the 1960s broke from the previous decades exclusive and stodgy politics into one of greater inclusiveness, sexual freedom, and activism. Instead, he argues that historians have understated attempts made by liberal social scientists and artists before 1960 to use managerial control as a tool to foster community while preserving individual autonomy. At the same time, these historians have overstated how drastically 1960s countercultural values and modes of expression differed from the liberal mainstream they were rebelling against. As The Democratic Surround shows the Technicolor 1960s did not wipe away the black-and-white palette of the early Cold War, but instead changed the resolution on an already existing spectrum of values.